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Polarizing Peru: The 2011 presidential elections

April 16, 2011

Nobel laureate and previous candidate from the 1990 presidential elections Mario Vargas Llosa hit the headlines again when, leading up to the first round of the 2011 Peruvian presidential elections, he stated that a runoff vote between leftwinger Ollanta Humala and rightwinger Keiko Fujimori would be like choosing between AIDS and cancer. On June 5th, this is exactly the choice that will be set before the people of Peru, over 46% of whom voted for other candidates during the first round elections.

One of the primary deal-breaker issues on the table during this election is economic policy, and in this regard, the two options are opposite extremes.

Many speculate that Ollanta Humala was defeated in round two of the 2006 elections more as a vote against Hugo Chávez, since he had openly supported Humala. He has gone to great lengths to avoid the appearance of el chavismo this time around, but his socialistic tendencies appeal to the indigenous population and the roughly 48% of the general population that lives in poverty. Despite steady growth over the past decade, economic improvement hasn’t exactly trickled down. However, the Peruvian stock market has already taken a hit as investors become increasingly leery of a potential Humala victory, despite his reassurance that his model of socialism will be more closely aligned with that of Brazil than Venezuela. If Humala can create a persuasive enough case for socialism a la Lula (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, recent past president of Brazil), he might even win Vargas Llosa’s vote.

Keiko Fujimori, the 35-year-old daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, is on the far right. Her father is currently in prison for corruption and human rights violations committed during his efforts to crush el Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), a Maoist insurgency not above homegrown terrorism. He’s still popular with many for cracking down on hyperinflation just about as hard as he cracked down on the people. Many fear a return to authoritarianism under Keiko. In some cases throughout history, the people of Latin America have actually preferred la manodura–literally, the ‘hard hand’ of an authoritarian regime–to chaos. Human rights violations are tolerable as long as it results in lower crime rates and increased social stability. Once things settle down, society is safe enough to try democracy again while granting amnesty to those who are guilty of crimes against humanity for at least 20 years or so. It remains yet to be seen if this toleration exists in Peru, even extending to a candidate who is almost certain to exonerate her father, rather than allowing the judicial system to run its course. After all, it’s more pleasant to remember the end of hyperinflation and subsequent strengthening of the economy than it is to remember government sanctioned death squads.

The Peruvian Constitution makes voting mandatory for all citizens. When I studied abroad in Peru, I remember asking one of our professors about this. It seemed incredibly illiberal to me that a democracy would require its citizens to exercise their so-called freedom to vote. He explained that he really had no idea how it would be enforced, and doubted that there would really be any real legal ramifications for not turning out on election day. In practice, nobody in Peru considers not voting.

In his April 8th article “Pivotal Elections for Emerging Peru”, CFR’s Joel D. Hirst explains that mandatory voting “gives added weight to those who remain undecided throughout the campaigning process.” Some speculate that Peruvians are now choosing between two extremes because the three other (considerably more moderate) front runners in the first round–Alejandro Toledo, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, and Luis Castañeda Lossio–were too similar to distinguish platforms.

In an April 15th press release for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, research associate Adrian Carroll expresses the following concerns:

“The unfortunate reality of the Humala-Fujimori run off is that it has dramatically polarized the electorate in such a way that will ultimately discourage thoughtful debate on a host of important policy issues during the run-off. [...] Now it seems voters will act based on one of two impulses: an emotional repulsion to Humala or Fujimori, or a preference for either’s populist appeals.”

This hearkens back to what Mr. Hirst said about the importance of the undecided. In many ways, the right to vote is the right to political apathy. If the right to apathy in the US plays out in a measely 56.8% voter turnout rate for the 2008 elections, then the right to apathy in Peru plays out in the emotional impulse that casts the vote.

Many will vote for Humala for no reason other than his indigenous heritage. Many will vote for Fujimori for no reason other than to see the first woman president of Peru.

All of these votes will have undeniable, irreversible effects that have the potential to set Peru back decades politically and economically.

One of the many reasons I fell in love with el Perú is the simple, humble national pride. Over the past couple of decades, the Peruvians have realized how much they have to offer the rest of the world. I loved seeing the logo with the smiling sun that said “Vive el Perú”, proudly advertising that the item had been made solely with Peruvian products. It reminded me of all the old posters urging US citizens to “Buy American!” as we focused on building our economy.

I hope and pray that no matter who is elected on June 5th, the people of Peru will continue to see at least some measure of growth that has marked their economy over the past decade. Only time will tell.

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